It is in the Eyes by Nidhi Arora
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Megha learnt to read early. It was a month before her sixth birthday when she finished her first big book. It was The Mystery of the Hidden House by Enid Blyton. She had discovered it in her father’s bookshelf, sandwiched between his thick medical journals. The pages had turned a bright ochre and came off easily. Her grandmother said that one of her cousins had left it behind many years ago, and she had saved it for Megha for when she started reading.

 

Megha was drawn into the world of the Five Find-outers and dog. She read about the mysterious goings-on in the British village of Peterswood with envy. She imagined herself in her their midst, holding secret meetings behind her parents’ back and looking for clues. Unlike them, ‘things’ never happened to her in the northern Indian town of Kanpur. Most of her afternoons were spent in the dispensary at her father’s clinic.

 

Her father, Dr Gupta, ran a general family clinic and her mother, Sunita, managed its dispensary and administrative affairs. The dispensary was separated from the clinic by a door and a square window in the wall. It was brightly lit with two fluorescent tube lights and smelled of medicines that lined its walls from top to bottom. After school, Megha’s cycle-rickshaw walla would drop her at the clinic where she would spend the afternoon doing her homework or napping on the off-white counter top, while Sunita went about her work.

 

On days with few patients, Sunita asked her to help in dispensing the medicines that Dr Gupta prescribed, by pointing out to where they were stocked in the room. They started with A for Avil, B for Benadryl, C for Crocin and so on, but before long Megha surprised her mother by reading out longer names like paracetamol and amoxicillin. Her personal favourite was Tixylix. Sunita gave it to her many times, whenever she had a cough. After a few years of working with Dr Gupta, Sunita considered herself half a doctor as well, and doled out medicines for common ailments to family and friends. Megha liked the sweet taste of Tixylix and the picture of a girl sleeping with a doll with golden hair. But most of all, she liked the musical name. It tickled her tongue. So much so that she decided to name her imaginary dog Tixy.

 

Sunita had been managing the clinic for eight years now, nearly as long as she had been married to Dr Gupta. Their match had been made by a common family friend. Mrs Gupta was an affable lady. She took an immediate liking to her prospective daughter-in-law. Sunita was in her final year of Home Science, and Mrs Gupta insisted that she complete her degree after the marriage. That was also the time when Dr Gupta was setting up his own practice. After her exams, Sunita offered to manage the administrative affairs of the practice for Dr Saab, as she called him respectfully.

 

‘Let him focus on his doctoring,’ she suggested to Mrs Gupta.

 

Mrs Gupta warmed up to the idea immediately and championed it as if it were her own.

 

‘Of course! Who better than you to manage the clinic?’ she said marvelling at the beauty of the arrangement. ‘And what better than this for you? Home and science!’ Chuffed with her own line, she repeated it to every relative and neighbour till it became part of family lore. That managing the clinic was neither home nor science bothered no one, least of all Sunita. She had grown up in a lower-middle class family with five siblings and considered herself lucky to have a degree in any subject at all.

 

She proved herself more than capable. She booked appointments for her husband, and when his diary was full, she sneaked in walk-in patients whenever she could. She took over the medicine supplies and entertained the medical reps. The clinic became more crowded than before and a shade disorderly with magazines and newspapers lying around, but Dr Gupta was happy to be relieved of administrative distractions and focused solely on his practice.  For her part, Mrs Gupta looked after the house and continued her benevolent reign over the kitchen. When Megha was born a year later, she took on her new responsibilities of Dadi with such energy and enthusiasm, that Sunita had no qualms going back to the clinic as soon as the forty days of confinement were over.

 

Dr Gupta was a devout Hindu and believed in good karma. Grateful for a healthy child, he decided to do pro bono work. Every evening, from five to six he opened the clinic to the poor for free treatment.

 

All her growing years, Sunita had struggled to make ends meet and had little regard for charity. She resented the claim on her husband’s time and on her clinic which, for that one hour, smelled of filth, of day-old sweat, of strife and suffering, things that she had been happy to leave behind.

 

‘They should go to the government hospital,’ she had argued at first. ‘This is your clinic, not a refugee camp.’

 

‘They have to wait for hours there. And do you know, they don’t even have any medicines most of the time,’ he said. ‘It is only one hour, Sunitaji. How does it matter?’

 

‘How does it matter? You could see four or five real patients in that time.’

 

‘We have enough, by God’s grace,’ he said. She was far from convinced, but it did not look like a battle she was going to win, so she left it at that.

 

Now that Megha was old enough, for that one hour, Sunita told her to go out and play. The house next door had recently changed hands. The new owners were pulling it down and building a new house in its stead. The construction work mesmerised Megha. She sat on a mound of gravel outside the gate of the house with her book and stared at the iron rods sticking out of the ground like fingers of a hungry monster. The pile of red bricks near the gate diminished and systematically resurfaced in the form of low red walls. The men sawed iron rods and slapped bricks with cement to the rhythm of drilling, knocking and hammering. They waved to her. Sometimes she waved back, in awkward jerky movements. Sometimes she ran away.

 

It took her a few weeks to read one of the new mysteries. After she put it down, she felt an uncontrollable urge to do some detective work herself. Not to be left out of the fun, Mrs Gupta made her a special notebook with unused papers from last year’s notebooks sewn together. She made a cloth cover from a printed handkerchief with ‘Megha’ embroidered on it in chain stitch. Megha wrote her name on the first page and drew a line down the second page and labelled the two columns ‘Clues’ and ‘Suspects’.

 

‘But what are you going to look for?’ Mrs Gupta asked, with a twinkle in her eye.

 

‘I don’t know … clues,’ said Megha.

 

‘Clues to what?’

 

‘To a mystery.’

 

‘What is the mystery?’

 

‘I don’t know yet. I need to find that too,’ Megha said, with fervour.

 

‘Ok, tell me what you find. I can be your assistant!’ Mrs Gupta said.

 

In the afternoon, armed with a notebook, pencil and a small polythene bag, and with Tixy in tow, Megha set about looking for clues. No one had gone missing and nothing had been reported stolen as far as she knew. But as she had learnt, a true detective did not wait for things to happen. The new house looked like a good place to begin. She started at the gravel mound and took slow steps, scanning the ground for anything unusual. Patches of brown grass stared back at her. Along the wall, where muddy water had collected, fresh green leaves were peeking out of the ground, and amongst them were tiny, light purple flowers with a yellow centre. The same flowers grew by the side of her school wall. Encouraged, she trudged on. She picked a scrap of paper with something scribbled in Hindi. She saw a green marble and a burnt end of a beedi she had often seen the workers smoke and that went in the bag too. Inside the gate was an L-shaped driveway running down the left side, all the way to the back. The back wall was up and she could hear men at work behind it. Tixy, hot on the trail of something, tugged at her socks, impatient to walk along the driveway which was lined with more beedi ends. As they approached the end of the passage and turned right, Megha saw a man squatting under the shade of a ledge, smoking a beedi. He was dark and looked very strong. He wore a skull cap and had a pencil wedged behind his left ear. Behind him was a big wooden table with tools of all shapes and sizes. The floor was strewn with wood shavings, spiral flowers, big and small, smelling of freshly cut wood. One of the saws was as long as her arm. Megha wondered if they had found their first suspect.

 

‘Are you cleaning this place?’ he grinned and asked, looking at her bag. He had yellow teeth, brown at the edges. She mutely shook her head.

 

‘You are the doctor’s girl, isn’t it?’

 

She nodded slowly.

 

‘What’s the name?’ he asked.

 

‘Megha,’ she mumbled.

 

‘Are you going to be a doctor too when you grow up?’

 

With a close-lipped smile, she shook her head slowly from side to side. She leaned toward him, opened her mouth revealing two missing upper teeth, said, ‘Detective,’ and scooted out of there back to the clinic, with Tixy on her heels. She quickly opened her notebook and documented all the clues she had collected. Under Suspects, she wrote ‘Man with brown teeth’. She was not entirely sure about him, but not having a single suspect after an entire afternoon of sleuthing would not do.

 

The next afternoon, the duo set forth again. She was lingering at the gate when she heard a shout. The man with brown teeth was gesturing her to come inside. She looked down as Tixy for opinion. ‘Do you think he is dangerous?’ Tixy wagged her tail enthusiastically, and so they both went ahead. The man held out in his hand a perfectly round sphere made of wood, about an inch in diameter. ‘Take it,’ he said and shoved it gently at her. She picked it up from his hand and looked it over. It rolled smoothly on her palm.

 

‘What is it?’ she asked.

 

‘You like marbles, no? This is for you,’ he said.

 

She didn’t particularly, but it seemed rude to say no, so she took it. She examined it closely but remained by and large unimpressed. ‘Where did you find it?’

 

‘I made it,’ he said, pointing to his workbench.

 

‘Did you make these flowers too?’ She pointed to the spiral shavings on the floor.

 

This amused the man.

 

‘These?’ he asked and scooped up a handful and gave them to Megha. She said a hurried thank you and ran back. He was turning out be an unlikely suspect. She took up the matter with her assistant in the evening.

 

Mrs Gupta was reading her Hindi newspaper when Megha came to her. The front page had pictures of a golden chariot, decorated with garlands of marigolds and roses. In it, were two old men, smiling and holding large swords.

 

‘What are they doing?’ Megha asked, leaning on her.

 

‘They are going to pull down a mosque and build a temple in its place,’ she replied.

 

‘Why?’

 

‘They say that place belongs to their god.’

 

‘But you said god is everywhere, no?’

 

‘Yes, my dear. But so is evil.’

 

‘What is evil?’

 

‘Bad people.’

 

‘Like these men?’

 

‘Maybe. There is good and evil in all of us. But leave all this.’ She folded the newspaper and put it aside. ‘Tell me, did you find any clues today?’

 

Megha produced the wooden marble and asked if she thought the man-with-brown-teeth was evil too.

 

‘No,’ Mrs Gupta clicked her tongue definitively. ‘He is just a poor man with a kind heart.’ She pressed the wooden ball tightly between her hands and rolled it, massaging her palms. ‘It is not in the teeth, it is in the eyes. Next time you are looking for someone suspicious, look at their eyes,’ she said.

 

‘But how will I know if a person is a suspect?’

 

‘Oh, you’ll know, I’m telling you.’

 

Megha looked deflated. ‘I won’t. I’ll never become a clever detective. It’s been two days and I am not finding anything. I don’t know where to look, what to look for.’

 

‘Arre! What is the big deal in that. Didn’t your detective friends tell you, all a good detective has to do is to keep her eyes open all the time. Who knows, you might find someone right here, inside this house,’ she said and made a fierce face with her nose scrunched and eyes opened wide. But all Megha saw in them was herself and laughed.

 

One chilly morning in early December, Megha arose up to realise that no one had woken her to go to school. She shuffled to the living room and found her parents and grandmother sitting on the sofa, listening intently to the news on the television. No one spoke. Megha was thrilled with the unexpected holiday and did not understand why everyone looked grim. Over a glass of warm milk her grandmother told her that school was closed that day. In fact, the whole town was closed. The mosque in Ayodhya had been demolished. Riots had broken out between the Hindu and Muslim communities in other cities across the state and it was not safe to leave the house.

 

‘Why are these people fighting?’ Megha asked.

 

For once, Mrs Gupta was at a loss for words. How was she to explain the hatred and violence to the child. ‘They are angry that their mosque was broken,’ she replied.

 

‘Who is winning, the good people or the bad people?’ she asked.

 

Sunita jumped in to her mother-in-law’s rescue and asked Megha, ‘So, do you want to come with us to the clinic or stay at home with Dadi?’

 

‘You are opening the clinic today? Isn’t everything closed?’ she asked.

 

‘Our area is quite safe, nothing will happen,’ Sunita said.

 

‘And in case something does happen, we should be there to help,’ Dr Gupta added. 

 

This was not Sunita had in mind, but the words had been said, and heard. If doctors needed to be there, so did detectives. Megha eagerly got ready, packed her water bottle, notebook and pencil and went with her parents. As she was leaving, Mrs Gupta called out to her.

 

‘If you see your marble-friend, tell him to be careful, alright?’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Just like that. Now go.’

 

As soon as they opened the clinic, Sunita switched on the news in the waiting room television. The clinic was quiet that morning and Dr Gupta sat in the waiting room with them. Around noon, Mrs Gupta telephoned to say that she had heard about some skirmishes in their neighbourhood as well.

 

‘Looks like the afternoon is going to be busy,’ Sunita said.

 

After lunch the first casualties started coming in. Two young men brought in an elderly man who had been injured. One of them held a cloth to the man’s forehead to stop the bleeding. The other one held his spectacles. One of the lenses had cracked. The injured man’s white kurta had turned red around the collar. People were throwing stones at each other, they said. The elderly man had gone out to the street to stop them but had been caught in the pelting himself. Megha was used to seeing blood. She could tell that the wound was deep and estimated that he would get nine stitches. But it was the glasses she could not take her eyes off. The men left it on the centre table in the waiting room and went in with the doctor. The crack was on the left corner of the left lens, and looked like a spider’s web. Megha was drawn to it like an insect. She walked over to the table, knelt on the floor and stared through the broken lens. It trapped sunlight from the window and broke it into tiny rainbows. The glass around the cracks had turned a powdery opaque and allowed only fuzzy silhouettes of the newspapers, the table, the green carpet and the black dustbin. The right lens was intact, and showed the world with a sharp clarity, although severely bent and much too small, as if she was looking down a steep hill. She rested her chin on the table and rocked her head from one lens to another, like a pendulum, wondering if the two visions would merge if she oscillated fast enough.

 

‘That’s enough,’ Sunita said to her crossly, as she came out of the clinic.

 

Dr Saab had just told her not to charge the elderly man or anyone else who was injured in the fight. ‘It doesn’t feel right,’ he said. Sunita was annoyed. This was not something she had agreed to, but now was not the time to argue.

 

More wounded men streamed in. Megha decided to take Tixy for a walk and pass Dadi’s message to the man-with-brown-teeth. But the gate next door was locked and there was no work being done in the house. Bored, she sauntered back into the clinic, which was now buzzing with activity. As Sunita scurried between the doctor’s chamber and the medicine room, Megha listened to what Dr Gupta needed, got it down from the shelves and kept it ready before Sunita arrived. Cotton, gauze, tincture, soframycin, codeine. Sunita checked the expiry dates before taking the bottles from Megha back to the doctor.

 

The evening wore on. They had seen eleven men and the waiting room was finally empty. The last patient in the chamber came with a broken arm and injuries to his forehead.

 

Dr Saab called for tincture from his clinic.

 

‘That was the last bottle,’ Megha said, worried. ‘We don’t have any more.’ The nearest chemist was a five-minute rickshaw ride away and even if they were able to find a rickshaw, it was not safe to go out.

 

‘No, no, I have a new bottle in the store,’ Sunita said. She dug out a four hundred ml bottle from a stack of cartons in the store, dusted it clean and rolled it in her hands to check the date. It had expired over a month ago. Her brows burrowed, and she took a deep breath.

 

‘What happened?’ Megha asked, having read and confirmed the name on the label. Sunita’s legs felt heavy with exhaustion. It was past six in the evening and dark outside. This was the last patient. Megha needed to bathe, eat and sleep. Hopefully schools would reopen tomorrow. Although, she could hear the news reporter announcing that incidents of violence were spreading to other parts of the country now, and in all likelihood the bandh would continue. ‘Tincture,’ Dr Saab called gently from the other room, oblivious to the rumblings in the world outside of his sanctum. For a moment, Sunita stared at the chamber door blankly, not focused on anything. Then she transferred some of orange liquid from the big bottle into the small one in her hand and rushed back inside. Megha pored over the label of big bottle, but those were big words and numbers in very small print, and they didn’t tell her anything.

 

The next evening, Sunita came home alone. Dr Gupta was on a home visit. Megha and Mrs Gupta had eaten while Sunita waited for Dr Saab. Mrs Gupta sat on the sofa, knitting a multi-coloured sweater for Megha and catching up on the day’s events with Sunita. Megha lay with a new mystery book, her head in her dadi’s lap. Every few minutes, she looked up and followed Dadi’s fingers as they danced nimbly from one stitch to the next without looking at the needles. The only time she looked was when she had to change to a different coloured yarn. The soft fabric that grew from those needles waved gently with every stitch and brushed against Megha’s face.

 

Dr Gupta came home around nine and scrubbed and changed before sitting down to eat. He told them about the emergency. Sunita served food in both their plates while Megha and Mrs Gupta listened from the sofa. It turned out to be one of the men he had seen the day before. He had high fever and the skin around his wound had blisters.

 

‘It got infected. I took him to the government hospital and got him admitted.’

 

‘Is he going to be alright?’ Mrs Gupta asked.

 

Sunita was staring blankly at the table, her brows coming together.

 

‘Should be. We’ll know tomorrow. I’ll check on him in the morning before clinic,’ he said.

 

Megha sprang and turned around to face them. ‘Was he the last one yesterday?’

 

He had seen far too many patients in the last two days to remember this and looked at her blankly.

 

‘The one with the broken arm? Right, Mummy?’ she prodded, now looking at Sunita, her head bursting with possibilities.

 

Sunita was jerked out of her reverie and turned to Megha. She did not say anything. Megha looked at her mother’s eyes and saw the answer staring at her. Silence hung heavy in the air. Megha slumped back into the sofa and sank her face in the warmth of her grandmother’s hold.

 

*


Nidhi Arora was born and raised in India. Having spent over a decade in Singapore, she now lives in London with her family. She writes short fiction, essays and reviews. Her work has been published in Cha, Quarterly Literary Review of SingaporeOpen Road ReviewThrice Fiction, Nanoism, Burningword, Mothers Always Write and other online and print publications.